Assyrians around the world ring in the new year with hope for a new spring

Photo at top: Ancient Assyrian artifacts are displayed in the Ashurbanipal Library at the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation. (Hannah Gebresilassie/MEDILL)

By Hannah Gebresilassie

Assyrians in Chicago, and around the world, celebrate Kha b-Nisan, or the Assyrian new year.

Milad Shaer, owner of Milo’s Pita, joined thousands in a Chicago-held parade to celebrate 7,000 years of Assyrian heritage. Their ancestry traces back to the ancient Assyrian empire in the prehistoric Middle East and present day Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran and other surrounding countries.

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Chicago Assyrians Milad Shaer, owner of Milo’s Pita, and Reine Hanna from the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation celebrate the Assyrian New Year with hope for greater peace in the Middle East. (Hannah Gebresilassie/MEDILL)

Shaer resettled in the United States in 1997 after fleeing northern Iraq to escape oppression and avoid death. His father was a chef for Shelter Now, a non-profit which provides humanitarian aid to the Middle East. Shaer says his father’s involvement opened up doors to start a new life in Chicago.

“We came here because of the violence but this violence never stops,” Shaer says. “Churches getting blown up, people getting beheaded and the kidnapping. That wasn’t as bad back then as it is right now.”

Able to avoid these deadly conditions, Shaer has also overcome language and cultural barriers in the United States. He is part of a community of nearly 100,000 Assyrian residents living in Chicago, according to the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation.

The foundation works to bridge the gap between Assyrians in the homeland and the United States. Reine Hanna, Director of Community Relations, is passionate about providing support for resettlement to Assyrian immigrants in Chicago.

“To know that there are people a world away that are suffering in your name,” Hanna says. “It’s not something that I’ve been able to make peace with just yet.”

Hanna and others at the center provide resources for refugees including the Ashurbanipal Library. It is home to ancient Assyrian texts and artifacts composed in English, Assyrain, Russian, Arabic and Farsi. The newly renovated library founded in 1984 is set to open May 1.

It is difficult to maintain the historical items due to centuries of persecution and displacement, Hanna says. However, head librarian Ninos Yousif continues to search out new additions to what is now the largest Assyrian collection to the world, according to the foundation.

Hanna grew emotional while explaining how ISIS showed up at her family’s door in Khabur, Syria, threatening to kill them in February 2015. She received the news on her twenty-third birthday.

“The only thing that I could think of at the time was that oh my God. It could’ve been me. And it would’ve been me had my parents not moved here,” Hanna says.

Fortunately, her family’s Muslim neighbors were able to negotiate with the terrorists so they could escape in one piece.

Despite the continued suffering from malicious terrorist attacks, both Hanna and Shaer keep hope that the new year will provide a greater sense of peace for their people.

“What Kha b-Nisan symbolizes is a new spring and rebirth,” Hanna says. “So hopefully with this new spring, we’ll start to see a little bit of that.”

Photo at top: Ancient Assyrian artifacts are displayed in the Ashurbanipal Library at the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation. (Hannah Gebresilassie/MEDILL)